What began as an overarching goal to improve and enhance the undergraduate learning experience at Michigan State University (MSU) resulted in a historic victory with the 2021 completion of MSU’s STEM Teaching and Learning Facility and Shaw Lane Power Plant Renovation and Classroom Addition. The MSU STEM facility is the first building on campus, and the first in the state, constructed with a newer mass timber framing product called cross-laminated timber (CLT). The entire facility is situated on the site of MSU’s decommissioned Shaw Lane Power Plant (1948–1975). This demonstrates an exemplary blend of adaptive reuse with state-of-the-art infrastructure for flexible learning.
Encompassing 120,000 square feet (SF) of new construction with 40,000 SF of renovated space, this project, completed by Granger Construction, utilized the existing power plant as the central portion of the building, with large additions on the north and south sides. The completed building allows the University to consolidate several teaching laboratories and classrooms which were formerly dispersed across campus. This creates a central hub for undergraduate STEM teaching and learning.
When Michigan State University (MSU) decided to build its first new classroom building in over 50 years, it faced some big decisions about the facility that would house state-of-the-art undergraduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) classrooms and (wet and dry) laboratories on its East Lansing campus. The land grant the university sought for the first time to centralize these gateway STEM courses under a single roof in order to provide new students with an appealing home base – a vibrant environment that would foster learning and community while bringing significant visibility for STEM at MSU. By selecting a high-profile site next to the MSU football stadium, opting for an innovative adaptive re-use approach, and choosing a hybrid mass timber and steel structural system for the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility, the University has created an inspirational landmark that emphasizes the value of STEM curriculum, serves as a transformational learning environment, and – as Michigan’s first mass timber building – serves as a beautiful bastion of innovative and sustainable building design.
The STEM Teaching and Learning Facility opened its doors in July 2021 to a small cohort of summer MSU students and to a robust population of fall students on September 1, 2021. The MassTimber@MSU program will monitor and report on students’ reactions to learning in the transformational space. In addition, the program will leverage lessons learned by going first with mass timber in Michigan, as well as ongoing mass timber research at the University, to support new mass timber projects through an array of education, outreach, and engagement activities.
MSU STEM Facility Program Goals
Program goals for this project included:
1) Improve and enhance MSU’s undergraduate learning experience, support experiential teaching, and learning, attract and retain more students in STEM disciplines, and better prepare these students for professional careers in fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
2) Bring together dispersed and outdated teaching laboratories and related instructional support spaces; support changes in curriculum and teaching methods associated with STEM.
3) Create a campus hub for teaching and learning across the sciences, arts, and humanities.
Over the first six months, the team faced the need to accommodate mounting programming requirements. What began as a single program option at a single facility gained two wings, then an adaptive reuse and power plant decommissioning component. Next came incorporating mass timber as a significant structural component. Then came a classroom addition. Finally, a food service component was added. In all, the team evaluated over $20 million in budget options to allow key stakeholders to consider various scopes and programing. The final budget was $110 million.
The original plan was to build a separate STEM building adjacent to, but not incorporating the existing power plant. However, when the State of Michigan was able to provide almost $30 million of DTMB funding, MSU chose to incorporate the rich history of the plant as the central piece of this new facility. To achieve the adaptive reuse plan, the team coordinated significant demolition and reconstruction of the existing 40,000 square foot power plant, as well as coordinated select architectural components to integrate the historical significance of the building into the overall design and character of the new facility. The level of planning, detail design, and logistics required to safely remove hazardous materials while salvaging artifacts for reuse prior to renovating the space was substantial. To accomplish this, the project team conducted several site investigations and full 3D scans with point mapping of the existing building before starting demolition. The team used BIM coordination heavily throughout this part of the project and invested in robust site safety measures.
Integrated Design Solutions was the Architect of Record. The O/A/C team worked in a collaborative manner through all phases of planning, design, and construction to ensure a highly successful project for the client.
Michigan’s First CLT Project
Implementing Michigan’s first CLT project and a mass timber facility of this scope brought many challenges. At the project start, there were no CLT manufacturers in Michigan capable of fabrication and execution, and few local firms had the necessary expertise or willingness to undertake the installation. Therefore, the team networked aggressively, contacting vendors across North America, and visiting multiple projects in the Northeast to secure experienced partners early. The team worked closely with mass timber experts at Nordic Structures early and continuously throughout the project to ensure success.
Mass timber is an advanced design and building technology. The STEM Facility demonstrates the University’s commitment to maximizing its impact while minimizing its carbon footprint. Among other benefits, mass-timber promotes forest health and reduces carbon emissions. The mass timber on this project, made from sustainably harvested FSC-certified Black Spruce, totals 3,082 cubic meters of glulam and CLT which store an estimated 1,856 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-e). This translated to avoiding 4,664,495 miles driven by an average vehicle or not burning 2,051,406 pounds of coal.
There are other sustainable benefits in addition to those associated with using mass timber – made from a renewable resource – instead of steel and concrete, which are carbon-intensive to produce and transport. While MSU has not published information on the building’s operational energy, the tight connections, combined with building insulation and a glazing on the windows to reduce solar glare and heat, are expected to result in energy efficiencies. Finally, since the mass timber arrived on-site prefabricated and ready to erect, those components produced very little waste on the construction site.
In addition to being cost-effective and sustainable, mass timber also gives the building an attractive, inviting look. Visitors can see the prominence of mass timber in the stairwells, common areas, and instruction spaces and it provides a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Prefabrication and LEED Silver Standards
Granger utilized prefabrication for several different components of the project. The use of offsite fabrication helped reduce material waste, increase site cleanliness and safety, and provided a more controlled and predictable installation process. At the MSU STEM project, Granger utilized prefabrication for the following:
- Water closets for the restrooms; these came pre-built as one large assembly.
- Utility hangers; by the use of trimble, the trades shot the anchors in the deck and marked them with a reference point that corresponded to a pre-fabricated hanger allowing for quick installation. This information was exported directly from the BIM model.
- Manifolded general duct; this process eliminated all field cutting and allowed for direct installation as it arrived on site.
- Welded stainless steel exhaust duct; this allowed for minimal field welding on site.
- Mass Timber Structure; Our entire building structure was pre-fabricated, made of Glue-laminated timber and CLT decking. This process resulted in zero waste for the structure.
The adaptive reuse of the former Shaw Lane Power Plant and immersion of existing artifacts contributed greatly to sustainability efforts. The new facility leverages existing shared spaces, structures, and utilities, such as a commons area, loading docks, and mechanical rooms, while also incorporating many historic artifacts. A former boiler was reimagined to house an interactive digital art installation, an ash silo was minimally renovated into meeting rooms, metal salvage was upcycled into tables and other furniture, and other interesting relics were repurposed across various art installations. Additionally, the team found significant water conservation opportunities by utilizing an existing 13,000-gallon expansion tank as a water source during interior demolition, abatement, and power washing activities. For demolition, the water was used as dust control. The team also used it for the decontamination showers and for power washing existing interior brick.
Many conservation organizations including the Nature Conservancy in Michigan, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Michigan Forest Biomaterials Institute (MIFBI) are actively promoting mass timber construction and this project has helped serve as a catalyst for additional mass timber construction in the state and beyond. The expectation is that this, in turn, will lead to establishing mass timber/CLT manufacturing in Michigan, which is ideally situated to become a leader in this area due to its abundant forest resources and its manufacturing know-how. This would not only create green jobs using sustainable resources but also provide financial resources and incentives to restore and conserve healthy, diverse, and productive forests.
The project is built to LEED Silver standards, which is a requirement for any project that receives DTMB funding; however, the university will not likely seek official LEED certification.
For more sustainable construction projects, read the Sustainability Issue of The Source.
MSU STEM Facility Challenges
Other challenges the team faced included structural, envelope, and MEP systems integration, final cleaning, material handling and protection, moisture control, and insurance.
This was a large project, with over 150 tradespeople onsite daily at peak times, and a significant portion of construction needed to occur amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, the construction industry faced many new challenges from mandatory shutdowns and transitioning to remote work conditions to new site operation and safety requirements. To meet these challenges and ensure everyone’s safety, Granger developed a small task force charged with navigating changing conditions. At MSU STEM, this meant implementing health screening kiosks, paper forms, and other physical safety measures, including hiring a full-time health screener and increasing daily cleaning practices onsite.
The project team also determined the safest way to continue work at MSU STEM was to go paperless. To this end, Granger built and implemented an application that could utilize QR codes for easy check-in across workplaces. This process meant the team could post QR codes at multiple spots across the MSU STEM job site and make the check-in link available remotely for an all-electronic health screen questionnaire. This paperless process lowered transmission risks from physical objects on-site, like paper, pens, etc. It also allowed the team to capture who was on-site and validate that they were cleared to be on the site, and conduct effective contact tracing if necessary. Because of the electronic system, there were no delays from the check-in process.
Even though the Granger team had no experience using mass timber, and the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges (getting mass timber across the U.S.-Canada border; worksite shut-downs), Granger delivered the STEM facility at its $110.1 million budget. What’s more, the project team reported that during the build it realized efficiencies that could have cut at least four weeks from the project timeline if present from the start. This bodes well for future mass timber projects in Michigan: as more companies learn how to build with mass timber, we may see cost savings on projects.